ONE week on Monday marks the 70th anniversary of a by-election where I grew up in Wishaw and Motherwell. Dr Robert McIntyre, a former Labour party member, became the first SNP Westminster MP.
He lost the seat in the general election weeks later. The seat has remained rock-solid Labour ever since.
She has spoken constructively beyond the borders of Scotland to the rest of the UK
At the last election, the redoubtable Frank Roy was returned with a thumping 61 per cent of the vote, with his nearest rival, Marion Fellows of the SNP, on 18 per cent. That left a swing of more than 21 per cent needed for the SNP to take the seat.
Frank Roy is an extremely capable Labour machine politician. I hear that tens of thousands of pounds have already been spent on his campaign. While he lacks volunteer support he doesn’t seem to lack money.
The SNP in return have seen their local membership grow from a few dozen a decade ago to more than 1,000 today. Marion is a grandmother who raised her family near Wishaw Cross and is one of those people who works every day for her community and always has. But can she win with such a mountain to climb?
Recent constituency polling from Lord Ashcroft suggested the SNP could be set to do just that. If borne out in the vote it will be a truly remarkable moment. I doubt I will contain my tears if she pulls it off.
I would urge strong caution at this stage. Any MP tally of more than 11 is still an all-time record for the SNP. But even my cautious heart must confess it feels different this time around.
If it is, that presents a host of new challenges for the SNP, as well as opportunities. The party will need to prepare for yet another transformation in its development and maturity as an organisation and institution.
As the third party at Westminster it would carry new rights and responsibilities few have considered. It would be on every committee, heard at every question time and in every debate.
As the government in Scotland with a large group in Westminster, it would either be supporting a minority Labour government or working to get the best deal for Scotland from whatever constellation appears.
This will present new challenges. One of the most impressive aspects of Nicola Sturgeon’s early leadership and her debate performance last week has been how she has spoken constructively beyond the borders of Scotland to the rest of the UK.
This trend has to grow further still. Scotland voted against independence, so the SNP must now work to ensure the best outcomes for Scotland and our friends across the UK. Until public opinion on independence shifts significantly, the SNP voice will need to take its new leadership role as representing a better way not just for Scotland but for English regions who would love to have Scotland’s voice.
Keep refighting last September’s battle crudely and the SNP’s relevance will diminish. Confidently define their new role as the unifying national party and government of Scotland as well as an example to new possibilities for the rest of the UK and the sky could be the limit. Play the long game cleverly and the goal of properly empowering Scotland could be realised much more quickly. This means openness, transparency and clarity of purpose. They must retain an open ear to the voice of the outsider to ensure all are served. It will mean the SNP growing both its policy thinking and infrastructure in the way it has at Holyrood.
And each time it influences positively at Westminster it will have to take ownership of that as it impacts Scotland and the Scottish Government. This makes the challenge to its narrative, campaign and strategy much more complex and nuanced than ever before. The latest farcical Westminster village story on leaked French diplomatic statements, denied by all involved, won’t change a single vote. The sniggered attempt to suggest the SNP would rather see the Tories govern than the SNP itself with influence in a minority Labour government are from a play book decades old that yet again fails to recognise modern reality. It’s also the opposite of what the SNP say clearly on every platform. Risible.
I can only guess what Robert McIntyre would make of it all had he survived to see this day. He died at 84 after a life well lived in public service a matter of months before the Scottish Parliament re-opened. His party has travelled far since the weeks of his lonely position in 1945.
Seventy years on, the SNP is better placed than any party to help navigate the many hard choices that must be faced by all countries and leaders, while taking the people with them.
I don’t doubt they are ready for this challenge and all it entails. But they must keep focused on what it means, as will its vast new membership.
In Nicola Sturgeon the SNP have a new leader leading a new government more ready for the modern era than any other in Europe. She is ready. We will find out soon if her country is, too.
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